Daquan believes we must create an entire new set of learning systems, created by the community for the community. To close the vast gaps of opportunity that have emerged in our education system and that limit economic mobility, Daquan’s comprehensive framework shows how anyone can create empowering youth cultures, recruit a core group of adults as champions for entrepreneurial education, roll out new curriculum tools across the disciplines, and physically transform classrooms into modular Co-Learning Spaces where advisors (teachers) facilitate the innovative work of entrepreneurs (students).
This innovative model transforms learning cultures and, through hands-on experiences, unleashes the potential of each child. Daquan believes in education as a constellation of “perfect moments,” which he describes as peak, memorable experiences that you know – even in the moment – are transformational. For him, one such moment occurred when he was 7 years old and was able to personally make enough money to buy a toy his mom had said was out of the question. “I bought that toy!” For another kid, it might be breaking her school’s record for the fastest mile. In either case, it’s something that you can tokenize and “lock it in.” This is important because, as Daquan points out, you can’t teach grit or perseverance. It needs to be practiced, internalized and habitualized. Perfect moments are points that you can’t turn back from. For many young people, hosting their own event or selling a product they came up with can be one such perfect moment.
So how can all kids have perfect agency moments as part of their normal school day? Daquan started piloting his approach through an after-school program at a community center in Boston in 2010. Here students learned how to identify problems within their lives and communities; built and delivered solutions collaboratively with peers and target audiences; and gained traction on their solutions by building social capital and positive support systems. This process, beginning with mindfulness and ending at collaborative strategy, showed students how they could harness the chaos around them to transform the world as they know it.
While that initial proof of concept was developed as an after-school program, Daquan then needed to know, “How does one shift youth learning culture from permission-seeking to empowering, and at scale?” To do this, WeThrive moved past the initial hyperlocal approach and embedded the model inside many different schools, all at once. To compliment the after-school program and to effectively embed the new empowerment mindset, they trained teachers as classroom Change Agents and worked with community partners like Aspire Public Schools and My Brother’s Keeper. Their model today emphasizes working with middle schoolers (13-14) before habits and identities are too fixed. All students participating in the program (2,000+ nationwide this year so far and growing) build a team and launch an enterprise, for example Buffalo Bully Busters, an app to alert teachers when students are being bullied, or Political Awareness, which ran campaigns and events to assist students in registering to vote and choosing the right candidate who represents their interests. By guaranteeing every student starting out knows she will start an endeavor, and not just pitch an idea or maybe win some funds, WeThrive is unlike any other young entrepreneurship organization. And importantly, they simultaneously work to address the broader culture and change the fundamental interaction between youth and adult.
Teachers are trained in the model, given the title Change Agents, and can access bi-weekly peer support offerings (and even more resources online via the WeThrive platform). Change Agents can also access WeThrive’s corporate database to help facilitate links between students and potential mentors in the local community. This comes in handy when students, using WeThrive’s Social Capital Module, identify topics on which they still need guidance and determine what types of people would be most helpful to plug those knowledge gaps. When it comes time for young people to launch their first initiatives, WeThrive can even provide small but catalytic investments of seed money, as necessary. Upon launch of their changemaking endeavor, young people then have the option to join the Alumni Portfolio, which continues to identify local opportunities for the growing local network to contribute to positive change. This youth-focused structure effectively allows for meaningful alumni engagement amongst youth changemakers as well as a national scaling strategy.
WeThrive not only creates curriculum that is standards-aligned (it fulfills the graduation requirements for International Baccalaureate and Career and Technical Education Schools), but also strives to create new standards that measure future-readiness and align with the skills projected to be in demand for tomorrow’s economy. On top of that, expectations of school and community partners include things like whether young people – through their ventures – are involved in their community, if policies are in place allowing student sales on campus, and if the school has invested in physically offering at least one Creative Space and one School Store within each school. WeThrive has successfully grown to more than twenty major cities, including New York, NY; Mobile, AL; Denver, CO; Detroit, MI; and Los Angeles, CA. Across those cities, this year they will activate 6,000 young changemakers. Based on current trends, 81% will still be running their initiative (or start a new initiative) one year later.
This year, WeThrive is projected to continue the 4-year trend of 100% growth since last year, with programming on both coasts and around the country. In the next 5 years, WeThrive will have institutionalized a self-sustaining seed fund at a district-level within more than 25 districts. The Alumni Portfolio, the primary vessel by which youth will take the helm of solutions within their communities, will be active within more than 100 communities nationwide. Within each community that has an active Alumni Portfolio, more than 80% of youth within that community will identify as changemakers who can improve their own lives and communities, after 3 years of operation. Demo Days, which not only serve as a community-wide celebration, but also a formal progression of youth into the Alumni Portfolio each year, will happen each Winter and Spring, eventually becoming teenage milestones like homecoming and prom.
By sharing their tools and supporting the network of partners deploying their model, Daquan increasingly views WeThrive’s role as creating the wider ecosystem within which this new entrepreneurship model plays. Therefore, they’ve created a robust online platform where any youth-serving organization can access their playbook, so long as they share what is working for them, too. Daquan chose this open model because he saw that his system will only work when all students can own their respective projects and pave their own path to success without constant supervision. Realizing the difficulties of trying to personally deliver and spread this model to every school, they stepped back to intentionally decentralize and rely more heavily on partnerships with those already in the communities.
As more and more communities connect with this work, WeThrive gets closer to realizing its vision of a world where every young person is provided with the skills, resources and most importantly the practice it takes to succeed. Daquan is encouraged by how quickly this change will come about, citing the earlier trend in STEM education and how computer labs (akin to his School Stores and Creative Hubs) are now fixtures on school campuses, so much so that now no one would be surprised if their 8 year old cousin could build a mobile app. Only what Daquan is normalizing is the expectation that all young people build and launch something, and that in so doing all underestimated youth reach their potential.